Rock's Cheapo Theatre of the Damned

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Commando (Lester, 1985)

I'm trying to picture what was going through James Horner's head as he composed this movie's soundtrack. I can picture him, sitting in the recording studio, shaking his head as he listened to each iteration of the score. No, no, no. More drum machine. More weird wind chimes. More wildly inappropriate sexy saxophone music. More moody synth undertone that doesn't mesh at all with any of the other instruments being used. More tense pan flute. More steel drums. Never mind that we're only on an island for the last third of the movie, we need more of the island vibes that only steel drums can provide. This has the kind of goofy ass soundtrack that they stopped giving movies as soon as the '90s kicked in, and it's all the better for it.

As for the movie itself, I don't know if this latest viewing provided any great new insights on my part, but I will note that for a movie that exemplifies the kind of excess we associate with '80s actioners, it's put together really tightly. This clocks in at ninety minutes and doesn't waste a moment. Even before we get to the legendary climax where our hero lays waste to an island paradise and seemingly massacres their entire army, we're constantly on the move, one great, punchy moment (both figuratively and literally) after another. Sneaking out of an airplane when the bad guy holding the hero is "dead tired". Beating the shit out of mall security guards when the hero's plan to kidnap a stewardess and force her to stalk the creepy guy who was harassing her earlier goes awry. Punching his way through a shitty motel. The list goes on. This is not a movie most would call stylish, but Mark L. Lester directs the proceedings with an almost visceral impact, so that each of these moments pop. When we get to the climax, the raw power of bullets being sprayed, bodies being shredded, their surroundings exploding into oblivion take on an overwhelming impact. And there's of course the famous suiting up scene, which codifies a certain fetishism in the genre around musculature and instruments of death (which would be notable subverted in Aliens and Predator in the years to follow). This is the ultimate '80s action movie.

Even though we take on the perspective of Arnold Schwarzenegger's cartoonishly muscular super-deadly he-man hero, from another perspective this plays like one of those "one crazy night" comedies like After Hours or Into the Night, where a perfectly ordinary member of society finds themselves unwillingly plunged into total late night madness. In that respect, Rae Dawn Chong proves effective as Arnie's co-star, her reactions to the escalating ludicrousness both lampshading the movie's excess but also providing a recognizably human perspective. And you get a bunch of fun supporting performances, like David Patrick Kelly being skeevy for no reason, Bill Duke getting a lot out of just a few words ("**** you, *******"), Dan Hedaya in racially questionable makeup, Vernon Wells with a pornstache as the main baddie. But really, Arnie is the key here, and the movie wouldn't work without him. I think the common take is that he's not much of an actor, but I wonder who else could have played with such a reality-defining combination of physical stature and lethal prowess and manage to imbue him with both sympathy and a sense of humour? The fact is, few others deliver one-liners this well.

All that being said, I'll try to pick apart two subtextual strains that stood out of to me more this time around. One, like a lot of movies of this era, the story is set in the context of American foreign policy. Arnie is a special forces colonel who made a lot of enemies around the world having run clandestine operations at the behest of his government. But the movie avoids overt jingoism, presenting the villains' motivations as a combination of blowback and personal grudges. Arnie has to operate without the support of his government, and is mistakenly believed to be the one causing havoc for much of the movie. (Which I guess he is, but they started it.) So I guess that's kind of interesting.

It also struck me with this viewing just how homoerotic the finale is. Earlier in the movie, Arnie makes a tired joke about "Girl George" that his daughter rolls her eyes at. And then you have Wells, who is cartoonishly evil in how much he loves to kill, and is gay-coded, both onscreen and through his casting (having played an unambiguously gay character in The Road Warrior). And you get that last scene where Arnie and Wells duke it out in a boiler room that might as well be a dungeon, the camera lovingly watching Wells pound into Arnie's glistening torso, and Arnie convincing Wells to drop his gun so they can fight up close. (He does this through the power of psychology. This is a movie for intellectuals, see.) A lot of '80s action movies have a strain a homoeroticism with their hardbody heroes but also a strain of homophobia in their use of stereotypes and slurs, but this one seems almost deliberately confrontational in this respect. Anyway, this is once again me as a straight dude trying to unpack queer subtext in a movie, so apologies for any dumbassed interpretations on my part.

Where'd you find the pic of me and my gf?
Preserving the sanctity of cinema. Subtitles preferred, mainstream dismissed, and always in search of yet another film you have never heard of. I speak fluent French New Wave.

Where'd you find the pic of me and my gf?
How was dinner with your father-in-law Steven Seagal?

Panic in the Streets (Kazan, 1950)

There's a scene here where the police are questioning a restaurant owner, and he takes a minute to converse with his wife about whether or not he should divulge that he in fact knew the recently deceased man they were looking for and knew his associates as well. He ultimately decides against it, but there's a tortured quality to this conversation, as the man seems torn apart by the decision. And there's another scene where the main character commiserates to his wife, and while supportive and kind, she urges him to stop feeling sorry for himself. Now anybody who knows anything about director Elia Kazan knows that the biggest stain on his legacy is his decision to name names to the House Committee of Un-American Activities. This was made two years before that happened, so it isn't exactly an apologia (you'd have to turn to On the Waterfront if you're looking for that), but it might explain a little of what was going on inside his head at the time. That being said, I don't want to misrepresent this as useful only for armchair psychology, as I found those scenes quite involving on a dramatic level.

I watched this as part of the Criterion Channel's November Noir series, but it's really more of a hybrid between film noir and a more procedural epidemic thriller. The movie cuts back and forth between an officer in the US Public Health Service and a police captain as they investigate the murder of a man who carried the pneumonic plague, and the lowlifes who murdered him as they try to evade the police. The noir feel is mostly present in scenes with the latter, providing a false sense of insularity and underlining their obliviousness as they fail to realize the true motivations behind the manhunt. This movie is notable for being largely shot on location in New Orleans, likely in places the tourism board isn't too thrilled about, and the open-air quality nicely accents the runaway nature of the disease, the fact that it can't be easily contained. This is shot by Joseph MacDonald, who also shot Call Northside 777, another movie that heavily features location footage albeit to differing effect. I enjoyed that movie as well, for its straight-shooting dramatic quality and the involving relationship between James Stewart and his wife Helen Walker. Also, if you wanted to, you could read a metaphoric quality into the premise in the context of Kazan's life, but I think it plays out in too literal-minded (not in a bad way) a fashion to support such a reading.

The main character is played by Richard Widmark. I haven't seen nearly enough of his movies, but the role I associate him most strongly with is the principled lowlife he plays in Pickup on South Street. So there's a disreputable quality that he has in my eyes, so I was surprised at how compelling I found him essentially as a decent family man who cares and wants to do his job well. It helps that he has a warm presence like Barbara Bel Geddes as his wife to play off of (and between you and me, were I Widmark's character, I would find more time to spend with Bel Geddes instead of at work). But I do think essentially guileless characters like this can be tricky to make dramatically engaging, and I think the movie pulls it off. I also liked the dynamic between him and the police captain played by Paul Douglas, who plays his character with a mix of skeptical, reluctant professionalism. You do get the sense he's trying to do the right thing, even if he takes some convincing. (Of course, the level of cooperation he provides is maybe not as much as Widmark would like, but in light of how things, ahem, have been the last two years, it's pretty damn good.) And you get some classic scumbags in Jack Palance and Zero Mostel, the latter with a pitch perfect pathetic combover, and a gorgeously shot climax in a warehouse, and this is a pretty darn engaging movie.

@Mr Minio, you got any thoughts on these? Diabolik DVD was doing a sale on Synapse titles (including the Nikkatsu pinku / roman porno releases under their Impulse Pictures label), so I grabbed a few.

Fairy in a Cage
Female Prisoner 101: Suck
Love Hunter
Nun's Diary: Confession
Sex Hunter 1980
She Cat
Star of David Beautiful Girl Hunter
Zoom In: Sex Apartments

Heh. Coincidentally, I ordered Dracula Sucks and Satanic Horror Nite from them today, even those are Vinegar Syndrome titles, which weren't on sale there, but were on sale on VS's site (I was too lazy to create a new account with VS and there were a couple other titles from Diabolik I wanted to order).

Side note, I noticed it was a lot cheaper to pre-order those Blue Underground Jess Franco 4Ks from Diabolik than Amazon.

I ordered another Doris Wishman box set and the Draguse / Bijou de líAmour double feature from the VS sale, but held off on getting anything else.

The Seventh Curse (Lam, 1986)

We open with a standoff between cops and crooks. The cops have the crooks surrounded but the crooks have a sharpshooter. Our hero, proving what great big cojones he has, enacts a scheme to surprise the bad guys by pretending to be a doctor, but it nearly goes awry when the nurse who's supposed to accompany him turns out to be a pesky reported not in on his idea. What erupts is as rollicking as any action scene in mid-'80s Hong Kong cinema, but it's shot in moody blue lighting and wide angles, as if to let us know something is up. Well, it turns out he has some curse that will cause him to die gruesomely if he gets near a woman, which coincidentally is the exact same reason I'm still single.

So naturally he has to go down to Thailand and investigate an evil cult. We know this cult is evil because they're all about human sacrifices, and when one of the cult members isn't down for doing a human sacrifice, the leader sics a ****ed up lizard baby monster on him, which is a great way to settle an argument. It turns out the person they plan to sacrifice is this total babe the hero saw earlier in the water in a see through gown, and he ends up pissing off the cult when he saves her. Imagine the scene in Cannibal Holocaust where Robert Kerman watches some of the cannibals rape a woman without intervening so he could follow them back to the village, and imagine if instead he jumped in to put a stop to the rape, only because he wanted to get with the cannibal woman. To repay the favour, she helps save his life by taking off her clothes, cutting her breast in closeup and feeding him a bloody orb. All of these steps are very important, and this isn't the only time someone eats an orb in this movie. Also, it turns out he still has the curse, and more hijinks ensue. I dunno, a lot of things happen, it's hard to explain.

If I had to summarize this movie's influences, it's roughly a combination of A Chinese Ghost Story and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. It pulls from the energetic visual style of the former, and the action-adventure elements and gonzo luridness of the latter, cranking it up a few degrees in explicitness. (I understand gross supernatural horror was a popular genre in Hong Kong cinema, but I think this one pretty blatantly takes cues from the Spielberg movie.) I do think the action-adventure mold presents a bit of a problem, in that the movie isn't terribly interested in making sense of the curse, meting out explanatory details as a total afterthought, so that the stakes aren't entirely clear. That being said, any story here is clearly a clothesline for the set pieces, and the movie is so packed with incident that narrative flimsiness becomes a non-issue. Every few minutes there's a high energy action scene or two-fisted image to hold your attention. Glowing eyeballs, reanimated skeletons, that ****ed up lizard baby monster, torn flesh, worms. It's like the Bulk Barn of action-horror movies.

The bigger problem is that Chin Siu-Ho is pretty bland as the protagonist. He's supposed to be some sort of dashing ladies man, but we never see how smooth he actually is. As the centre of the movie and the person upon whom all emotional stakes are placed, this is a bit of an issue, but his flatness means that our attention turns to the supporting players, and this is a star-studded cast. The posters prominently feature Chow Yun-Fat, but he's really in the movie for a few minutes, popping up sporadically to huff on a pipe, although he does get a great moment in the finale. The role carries the aura of someone calling in a favour, but I like to think that Chow just wanted something to do on his day off and showed up to the set. There are also a ton of smaller roles from recognizable faces (Kara Hui and Yasuaki Kurata as police officers, Chor Yuen and Wong Jing at a party, Joyce Godenzi as a woman the hero tries to pick up, to name a few), but really this movie is Maggie Cheung's show. Her role as the pesky reporter could have been annoying in other hands, but she plays it for maximum goofy charm. Cockblocking the hero at every turn, getting herself into all kinds of trouble, but also saving the day multiple times thanks in part to the shitload of guns she brings to the adventure. A character that's very hard to hate, especially in Cheung's tremendously charismatic hands.

@Mr Minio, you got any thoughts on these?
Perhaps the most brutal Roman Porno. Also, one of the best. Naomi Tani is amazing.
Female Prisoner 101: Suck
This one is good, but not very good. The title is an obvious trick to cash in on the Scorpion series. These films have nothing in common, needless to say. This has Naomi Tani, though, and every Tani film is worth seeing.
If this is the 1972 film directed by Seiichiro Yamaguchi, then I haven't seen it.
Nun's Diary: Confession
Another good pink film. This time with nuns!
This one is a classic and contains the best Coca-Cola ad I've ever seen! I probably underrated it a bit.
Haven't seen.
Star of David Beautiful Girl Hunter
Perhaps the best pink film of all time. Suzuki is a master.
Zoom In: Sex Apartments
This one is good, but not very good, too.

Good to hear. I grabbed those based on the relatively positive reactions from my Letterboxd network, but didnít have too much of a frame of reference otherwise. There were some others in the sale that seemed well regarded, but maybe a bit skeevy for me for a pinku novice like myself to start with.

I can confirm that Lady Terminator rules on the big screen with a properly enthused crowd. I can also confirm that itís much better as an action movie than I remembered, and in fact rules in general.

I can confirm that Lady Terminator rules on the big screen with a properly enthused crowd. I can also confirm that itís much better as an action movie than I remembered, and in fact rules in general.
I remember someone (crumbsroom, I think) referring to it as the best so-bad-it's-good film ever made a while back, but I never got around to it. I might check it out if I get in the mood.

I remember someone (crumbsroom, I think) referring to it as the best so-bad-it's-good film ever made a while back, but I never got around to it. I might check it out if I get in the mood.
It probably does deserve that label, but the action in it is genuinely impressive and the movie is pretty nicely shot.